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Exploring the Constitution

What are Constitutions for?

Almost all countries in the world have a codified constitution, normally in a single document, such as the US Constitution. These constitutions act as a ‘higher law’ and fulfil two functions:-

a)      They set out a set of rights that protect the citizens of the country and limit the power of the State.

b)      They define the powers of the different parts of the State and the relationships between the various institutions of the state.  For example, of the President, Parliament, the Judiciary and Local and Regional Government.

Two other characteristics accompany a written constitution:-

  • It is "entrenched’, so that the process of changing it cannot be carried out by a simple majority in Parliament as with other laws. It may require a two-thirds majority in Parliament, as in South Africa, or support from the electorate in a referendum, as in the Republic of Ireland, or support from different parts of the country, as in Canada.
  • Constitutional Court.  Countries with a codified constitution also have a higher court whose responsibility is to decide cases that come before it in line with the provisions of the constitution. Sometimes it is a separate court that only deals with constitutional matters and sometimes the Country’s supreme court has this as one of its functions. These courts also normally have the power to rule that legislation passed by the national parliament is invalid because it is not in conformity with the constitution.  Powerful constitutional courts such as the United States Supreme Court and the German Federal Constitutional Court have been important in developing the constitution by the way in which they have interpreted it.

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